Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Catching Up With Bob Liddil, aka Captain 80

I recently had the chance to speak with Bob "Captain 80" Liddil, founder of The Programmer's Guild, publisher of numerous adventure and arcade games for the TRS-80 computers back in the early 1980s.  He also wrote a popular magazine column, and edited the famous and influential Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures.  I had planned to ask him a few questions to clear up some historical details, but Mr. Liddil's fond memories of the era are sharp and detailed, and he graciously gave me more than an hour of his time.  I didn't record our wide-ranging conversation, so while I took lots of notes, little of this is directly quoted.

Bob Liddil moved from California to New Hampshire to work for Instant Software, at a time when the company was fielding submissions and proposals by authors including Scott Adams and Bill Gates.  Gates' BASIC-language, all-text flight simulator game was rejected in favor of a more sophisticated flight sim called Ball Turret Gunner by Sparky Starks, who later wrote a number of games for Adams' Adventure International.

Instant Software occupied a converted motel.  One of the suites was the TRS-80 lab, almost a ballroom.  An informal club called The Late Night Adventurers weren't authorized to be in there after midnight, so they kept light to a minimum with a single bare lightbulb and a computer screen running for their all-night gaming sessions.  Charter members of the Late Night Adventurers included Liddil, Kepner, "Reese" and "Shorty."

The Wayne Green organization (of which Instant Software was a part) had some money, but the hierarchical company culture didn't suit many of the creative people who came to work there, and there were several other computer software publishers and magazines operating in the New Hampshire area.  Roger Robitaille's SoftSide Publications was less than 30 miles away, so every time Wayne Green fired somebody, they showed up at SoftSide the next day.  Bob recalls that George Blank, author of the Hammurabi-style game Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio for Instant Software, was one who later migrated to SoftSide.

After joining the ranks of the Wayne Green Alumni Association for the usual reasons, Bob decided to found his own company, The Programmer's Guild, which acted as both a publisher and an agent for game programmers.  The company operated out of the top floor of a three-story apartment building.

Terry Kepner, who later published Portable 100 magazine and wrote the science fiction reference book Proximity Zero, was part of the original Instant Software team that Bob joined around September of 1980.  Using the pseudonym Teri Li to avoid contractual conflicts elsewhere, Kepner wrote The Programmer's Guild's first product, the Lost Dutchman's Gold adventure (copyright 1979).  He also wrote the company's second release, Spider Mountain Adventure.  Bob Liddil took Lost Dutchman's Gold on the road to Boston-area computer dealers, and was happy with initial sales, returning home with orders for three more titles.

Charles Forsythe, a schoolboy in Boston at the time, became the company's programming mainstay for years, creating many of its biggest hits beginning with Dragon-Quest Adventure and leading to arcade games like Ninja Warriors and Pac-Droids, published before he started at MIT.

A notorious early release was Death Dreadnaught, a sci-fi adventure with more than the usual quota of gore splattered about the derelict alien ship.  80 Microcomputing magazine would not accept The Programmer's Guild ad for the game as originally submitted, until Bob amended it to label the game with an MPAA-inspired R rating; this may have been the first-ever rated game, preceding the Atari 2600 X-rated games by a few years.  Death Dreadnaught was written by anonymous authors based in Texas, known informally as the Dog Brothers; the game was credited to Biff Mutt and Spud Mutt, and royalty checks were endorsed the same way.

There were "adventure wars" at the time, generally based on a friendly spirit of competition.  Scott Adams was doing multiplatform releases in machine code, while The Programmer's Guild was doing games in BASIC and encouraging users to learn how the code worked.  After the Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures was published, there was a flood of new adventure games on the market.  Bob Liddil is credited with popularizing the term Interactive Fiction in a 1980 article for Byte magazine -- I can believe that, as the earliest use of it I've personally seen dates from around the same time in an Adventure International catalog.

Another familiar name in adventure gaming that came up in our conversation is that of Greg Hassett -- Bob told me he got his start as a very young SoftSide adventure game author.  Hassett's games were published through Mad Hatter Software, operated by a Tim... somebody..., who was a character and always wore a top hat.  (I had thought that Mad Hatter was Hassett's own company, as it appears to have changed company names over the years while retaining the same address and continuing to publish Hassett's games, but this information clarifies the situation.)

As an agency, The Programmer's Guild represented famous TRS-80 graphics whiz Leo Christopherson, and in fact pre-sold a version of his Snake Eggs for the Apple II -- but the publisher went bankrupt 45 hours after cashing the check, so it never saw release.

There was a second Bob Liddil BASIC adventure book called Castles & Kingdoms, sold as a new as-yet-unwritten book to Virgin enterpreneur Richard Branson in 1982 or 1983 and targeted to the Commodore 64, a more popular machine in Britain.  The book was published in the UK, and physically bootlegged in Eastern Europe; the same happened with the Captain 80 book.

The Tano company produced an American version of the British Dragon 32/64 machine, a close cousin of the TRS-80 Color Computer, and licensed adventure programs from The Programmer's Guild to be published bundled with the machine.

There was also a Programmer's Guild UK company, run by Graham Haywood, a typographer for the Wakefield Express, and a pharmacist partner named Alan Wock.  Around 1982, Haywood invited Bob to come to England to discuss licensing; they became good friends, and contracted to form Programmer's Guild UK, with an advance against royalties.  The operation ran smoothly for 6 months, then became unstable; as Haywood actually held the licenses, not the partnership, Bob flew back over and relicensed the titles exclusively to Graham Haywood's Programmer's Guild UK.  After some further controversy PG UK was sold to another computer game company in Lancashire.  Graham Haywood died in 1994 as an illegal immigrant in the US, so classified only because he was very embedded in the printing trade and never bothered to get a green card.  He had lived in Peterboro, New Hampshire for the rest of his life.

Bob Liddil was not a coder; he calls himself a hustler and a huckster, but today we call that marketing.

Alex Kreis wrote Domes of Kilgari; Bob came up with the name, Alex did all the design and coding.  The game was not originally intended as a sequel, but Death Dreadnaught was very popular due to... the color of the documentation?  It tied in with Liddil's Rider Fantasy Creations, a kitchen-table publisher of unofficial Dungeons & Dragons materials, and a similar packaging approach was taken with the early Programmer's Guild games.  There was a lot of crossover between the sci-fi community and early computer and adventure gamers.

The Programmer's Guild's third adventure game was Temple of the Sun, missing from a lot of online lists of the company's games.

Gauntlet of Death was more of a Rogue-like game than an adventure, but was maddening to play -- it was an action/reaction text versus graphics game, and if you touched the wrong thing you were dead.  It was inspired by Flying Buffalo's Tunnels & Trolls book Grimtooth's Traps.  At this time legal arrangements were often handshake deals, with no formal contracts, and Bob inadvertently owned the Flying Buffalo character Grimtooth at one time, accidentally, due to a paperwork mixup in conjunction with another deal.

What killed The Programmer's Guild?  BBS's (dial-up bulletin board systems with file upload/download capabilities) and piracy were killing the whole industry at the time, and Bob Liddil and a prominent pirate nearly came to blows at a computer show at one point.  There was also an unexpectedly rapid move toward more sophisticated software as the home computer market matured, requiring more substantial investment in new titles to keep up with market expectations, and greater risk.  But it was an exciting time to be getting a company off the ground, and even now Bob is amazed at what his authors were able to achieve in a mere 16K of memory.

Thanks very much to Bob "Captain 80" Liddil for sharing so many memories; he's cleared up a lot of things I had always wondered about, and provided some new leads for further investigation.


  1. Many thanks for that interview. It brings back a lot of memories, many previously forgotten!

    I do remember that that I always had great respect for Captain 80! I always thought he did a great service for the industry at the time!

  2. I was hoping you'd enjoy this one, Scott. Bob also mentioned that after he acquired a new vehicle, he took a trip down to visit you in Florida. Good times.

  3. I thank you for this excellent and accurate interview. Having been there when it happened, it is refreshing to see so many of the details correctly recorded. The only thing I would add is that, typical Bob, when he returned from his first run at showing Lost Dutchman's Gold with orders for three more titles, he told me we had a whole week to write the second game, as he had promised it to the store owners the next Friday! My conversation for the next hour was mostly four-letter words. But we did it.

    Bob was, without a doubt, quite a character. I remember him coming into Instant Software one morning and saying "Want to go to New York? I've charted a plane and want company." I discovered, when we got there, that he was meeting with a major book publisher and passed me off as his assistant. We got a lovely view of view of the Statue of Liberty, flying only a few hundred feet above it (and to the right); and also went home with a multi-thousand dollar advance check! That was neither the first, nor the last of those kinds of escapades.

    As to the downfall of Programmer's Guild? It was the piracy, plain and simple. The stores (on the west coast) that used to buy his games were all reporting that their customers already had his new games, they downloaded them from BBS's, before UPS could deliver the product to the stores!

    Terry Kepner

  4. Terry,

    Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your memories! I have written in detail about a few of your games and will probably be tackling others in the future. I'm really glad to be able to capture some of these anecdotes -- so many early movies and their stories were lost, I am doing my best to see that this young art form is better documented. Much appreciated!